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SUNDAY BRUNCH | Book Shelf

Mysteries

March 08, 1998|DICK LOCHTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the aptly titled "Blood Work" (Little, Brown, 400 pages, $23.95), Michael Connelly, author of the Harry Bosch series, once again displays his knack for crafting strong, likable protagonists and for placing them in unique and perilous quandaries. This non-series thriller focuses on Terry McCaleb, a former FBI expert on serial killers whose stressful occupation has been at least partially responsible for his need for transplant surgery.

He's recovering when he discovers that the donor of his healthy new heart was slain, with the killer still at large. He feels compelled to leave the comfort and safety of retirement and recuperation to go on one final hunt. And, as fate and the author would have it, he finds something the police have overlooked, indicating that the murder had not been a random act.

Connelly's plots sometimes turn on tenuous logic. (In this case, the means by which McCaleb is drawn to his quest seem a little contrived.) But his style is so gripping, his characters so well defined and the novel's action so swift that even the most discerning mystery fan should be satisfied. Clint Eastwood has already optioned the book for filming, which is no surprise. Here, at last, is a chance for him to play a crime buster with heart.

*

"The Only Good Lawyer" (Pocket, 276 pages, $23), the 12th addition to Jeremiah Healy's series featuring John Francis Cuddy, puts the honorable and durable Boston private eye to severe tests of conscience and physical ability when he accepts a possibly homicidal racist as a client. The champion of intolerance has been charged with the murder of his wife's African American divorce lawyer. Cuddy is repulsed by the obnoxious blowhard, but he's also convinced the guy is being framed. What can he do but lend justice a helping hand?

His decision is met by hostility from his girlfriend, who had a past association with the victim, and a near-fatal bashing courtesy of loan sharks who have reasons for wanting the client to remain the prime suspect.

Much of the novel is devoted to an investigation of the members of the deceased's law firm. And Healy, a former trial lawyer and law professor, takes great relish in letting his sleuth make it hot for the attorneys.

Since his first award-winning novel, "Blunt Darts," in 1984, the author's long suits have been an ear for nuance in dialogue and an eye for subtle gesture. Both come into play in the passages in which Cuddy confronts each reticent partner in the firm and the super-efficient office manager. These are the among the best examples of interrogation technique the crime genre has offered since Nero Wolfe made his final deduction.

*

It's not often that a popular mystery writer will take on the assignment of concocting fictional adventures for characters not of his own creation. But as "The Rockford Files: Devil on My Doorstep" (Forge, 288 pages, $22.95) indicates, prize-winning novelist Stuart Kaminsky seems delighted with the task of carrying James Garner's alter ego through as many literary capers as the traffic will allow.

Such a decision is understandable. Jim Rockford is arguably the most entertaining and engaging sleuth ever to hit the airwaves. And if Kaminsky is fan enough to temporarily desert his Toby Peters, Porfiry Rostnikov and Abe Lieberman adventures to further the Rockford canon, who are we to complain?

The first of the author's Rockford novels, "The Green Bottle," was surprisingly true to the series. (I say surprisingly because the recent movie-length "Rockfords" on TV are not always able to recapture the rapture of the earlier hourlong episodes.) "Devil" is even better, a well-crafted twisty tale in which the resourceful PI tries to help a teenager who may be his daughter and winds up dodging city and federal lawmen and Mafia thugs.

Characters from the TV series appear in welcome familiar form, like the hero's hapless police pal, Lt. Becker, and the incorrigible con man Angel Martin, this time adding a few strokes to the fine art dodge. And there are intriguing additions to the cast, including a hit man who quotes Emily Dickinson and a young African American lawyer (the hero's new mouthpiece) who delights in facing off cops and U.S. marshals. Good fun.

*

The Times reviews mystery books every other Sunday. Next Week: Rochelle O'Gorman Flynn on audio books.

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